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Images of the Sea
October 2011

Artists have been fascinated by water at least since the ancient Egyptians showed rivers and lakes as schematized wavy lines at the base of wall reliefs. With greater sophistication of means and vision came more convincing representations of the mysterious moods of the stuff that covers nearly three-quarters of the planet, with certain artists, like J.M.W. Turner and Winslow Homer, making the sea the most compelling focus of many of their mature works. Even a seemingly landlocked painter like Edouard Manet, the consummate chronicler of city life, tried his hand at capturing the sea's roiling unpredictability.

The growth of photography in the last 150 or so years should logically have led to even greater attention being paid to the ocean's ever-shifting temperament, at different times of year and day, but with the exception of the largely conceptual strategies of Hiroshi Sugimoto, I can think of few who have trained their camera on the sea in a sustained and serious way. For the last 15 years Sandra Gottlieb has done just that, producing several series shot from a secluded beachfront in Rockaway Beach, New York. Her three most recent bodies of work are remarkable for showing just how different the same stretch of water and sand can look when an artist trains her eye and camera on one of Nature's most glorious and fickle spectacles.

Arguably the most sensational and painterly of her latest series is "Summer 2009," taken over a two-month period with a Canon digital camera. In some of these the colors are so brilliant and jewel-like the scenes seem almost tropical (but, no, they are all of a beach in Queens); in others the effects of haze give a luminosity that suggests a filter or manipulation on a computer (again, no--Gottlieb says that what you see is what she gets with just the camera). Some, such as No. 2 and No. 8, are so disorienting the world feels topsy-turvy, sky and sea dizzily reversed. Most demonstrate the artist's sharp feel for composition: areas of placid water, pounding surf, and slick sand are as sharply delineated as blocks of color in a Japanese woodprint.

Equally painterly but more subdued is "Winter 2009," in which all the images were captured in half an hour in the face of an approaching winter storm. Certain artists, like Whistler, are famous for coaxing the maximum resonance from all the variations of the color gray (if you consider gray a color at all), and Gottlieb also shows how much punch you can muster by setting subtle chromatic variations side by side: steely blue-gray against deep Prussian blue against a muddy taupe. Throw in a rivulet of creamy surf or a sliver of peach sky and the whole composition snaps to life; we find ourselves amazed that both the camera and our eyes can discern so many subtleties.

Gottlieb's most recent series, "Waves In Black and White 2011," makes a completely different statement about the ocean. Many of these photos, such as No. 7 and No. 21, suggest the sea as primal force; the brute indifferent frenzy of water could carry us off without leaving so much as a trace. Indeed, one of the most powerful photos from this series, No. 25, presents the sort of curling, cresting wave that may be a surfer's delight but presages a soggy roll for the rest of us. Other images are more benign: the lacy or sudsy ripples of surf have a syncopated, musical quality. But all have a different kind of drama from the color series—in the same way that a black and white film can offer up a sharper jolt of terror or suspense than its equivalent in Technicolor.

The artist has professed her admiration for painters who have a strong feel for simplified abstract composition, like Mark Rothko and Milton Avery, and her work does depend on a similar unerring sense of design. But the way Gottlieb works seems to have the greatest affinity with Claude Monet, who patiently recorded the changes of light on a cathedral façade or a field of haystacks over a period of days or weeks. The advantage of the camera lies in its ability to record the way Nature can change in a split second, as much so as in a season. In choosing the sea as her subject matter, Gottlieb speaks to something very primal in all of us (about 60 percent of the body is made up of water, after all), and whether we live near an ocean or not, there remains something peculiarly fascinating about this least-explored phenomenon of the earth's surface. Gottlieb helps take us there.

Ann Landi, writer - ARTnews, 2011

Winter Garden 2023
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Abstract Jetty 2022
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December Sunset 2020
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A Cloud Study, Sunset 2016
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October Waves 2013
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Waves In Black and White 2011
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Summer 2009
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Winter 2009
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Seascapes 1996 thru 2006
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